Youths develop life skills through competition

July 27, 2004|by Jeff Semler

In recent years, as sportsmanship and civility in society have declined, programs and organizations involving competitive experiences for youth have come under increasing criticism.

Some people have even called for the elimination of competitive programs for youth, citing examples of cheating, poor sportsmanship, inappropriate parental involvement and young children competing before they are emotionally ready.

However, 4-H has successfully offered young people opportunities to develop important life skills through hands-on projects and competitive events for more than 100 years.

Competition is part of life and shouldn't be considered "all bad." Competitive experiences can enhance youth development - if they are planned and conducted appropriately.


I would like to suggest that parents ask five questions when evaluating whether competitive opportunities available to their children meet these criteria:

1. Are the policies, rules and procedures by which the program operates achievable and in the best interest of youth?

Experiences should be appropriate for the cognitive, psychological-emotional, social-moral and physical development of the participants.

2. Are policies, rules and procedures supported and applied consistently and fairly?

Program organizers, judges and others involved with the program should not give preferential treatment to any group or individual. If officials make exceptions, they should be made for everyone involved. A logical sequential plan for handling infractions and behavior problems should be in place.

3. Is orientation about the program provided, including expectations for participants, parents, staff and others?

The orientation should include information on such topics as program rules; participant and spectator behavior and attitudes; and how the program is planned, conducted and evaluated.

4. Do adults associated with the program keep their emotions under control, regardless of how others are behaving?

All involved adults should set a positive example of friendliness, maturity and professionalism, and encourage youth participants to do likewise.

5. Are youth participants encouraged to have fun and learn from the competitive experience?

Program organizers, judges, parents and other adults should encourage youth to enjoy their competitive experiences, make friends with other participants who have similar interests, do their best, and keep their performance in appropriate perspective.

Most importantly, adults should help youth review what they did during the competition to gain insight, celebrate what they did well, identify areas to improve and think about future goals and plans.

This week begins the Washington County Ag Expo where 4-H showcases some of its programs, projects and competitive events.

Come out and see what 4-H and the Ag Expo have to offer the community at large. You will be amazed and entertained - but I hope you also learn about agriculture and that teaching life skills is more important than winning or losing.

After all, a youth learning life skills to become a competent, caring adult is a winner, but so is the community.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in 4-H youth development as well as agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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